By Melissa Thompson, CEO of TalkSession
Remember founding father Ben Franklin’s advice that ends in, “Healthy, wealthy and wise?” There is no place where the interconnectedness of those very attributes Franklin championed are more evident than in the workforce. Not only will a mentally healthy workforce directly translate to direct benefits for the American worker, it will bolster businesses’ bottom lines by greatly reducing lost productivity, absenteeism, and worker’s compensation and disability claims.
It is well known that the costs of mental illness in the U.S. are enormous. We must confront these needlessly exorbitant tolls while also embracing the idea that an investment in a mentally healthy workforce will reap benefits far beyond keeping commerce running smoothly; and for a longer period of time as the working population ages. According to the Confederation of British Industry, quoted in the World Health Organization report “Mental Health and Work: Impact, Issues and Good Practices,” “We… are convinced that the mental health of a company’s employees can have an important impact on business performance in the same way as do industrial relations climate or inadequate training.”
The consequences of employee depression cost billions of dollars in lost productivity. Figures range from $23 billion in lost productivity for employers to a staggering $193 billion annually in lost earnings for employees themselves, according to the results of a 2008 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The problem is exacerbated for the part-time workforce, wherein absenteeism increases to 13.7 days in those who are depressed, up from 8.7 days yearly in the non-depressed.
Mental health issues in the workplace have consequences that strike beyond the individual employee himself. Apart from absenteeism, mental health concerns can diminish work performance, interfere with inter-staff and client relationships and be destructive to overall company morale. As staff morale sinks, issues like increased turnover, worker injury, errors, productivity reduction, and inefficiency increasingly rise to the surface.
The solution is to proactively and primarily address the holistic wellness of the person, and the employee second. The preventative approach is far more cost effective for taxpayers, beneficial to businesses, and the actual employee. Again to draw on Ben Franklin’s wisdom, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
From a business standpoint, holistic programs aid the employee in mind and body are an investment not only in the employee, but also in the company. In much the same way that improving infrastructure in our country, including roads, bridges, airports, will secure a sunnier future for a wide swath of the population, investing in the mental and physical well being of the American workforce will pay similar dividends. The society that harnesses human capital to assist people with mental wellness will maximize potential. It can take people from being unemployed or underemployed to having their talents fully utilized and this stands to harvest the most from a workplace that recognizes the critical importance of the mind-body connection. President Obama’s FY 2013 Budget includes a plan to renew and expand America’s infrastructure, which would result in employing many, particularly in the construction and manufacturing sectors.
The thinking is that by reinvesting in wellness programs that would put Americans to work, these projects would continue to reap rewards in the future not just in the jobs they produce but in the enhanced future capacity of the community. Modest spending in programs to bolster employees’ mental health infrastructure, as viewed through the prism of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), health insurance programs and wellness plans and disease management should easily pass this same litmus test of a cost-benefit analysis.
The data is convincing. When programs are put to work to help employees with issues such as alcoholism or substance abuse, domestic violence, depression, and other mental disorders, there is a rise in productivity. The George Washington University Medical Center’s Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems program affirms that for the condition of depression, “A large body of research shows that high-quality treatment of depression can reduce days of work missed and cut low productivity days.”
As far back as 1990, experts tabulated the cost to businesses for each depressed worker at $600 annually, with two-thirds of these costs related to absenteeism and lost productivity. This is where mental wellness plans must bridge the tremendous gap between a worker’s current reality and the bright future. The funds expended must be used more effectively and proactively to create an environment of mental wellness. Ultimately, the goal should be to help the workforce become healthier and creating and investing in a mental wellness plan is a factually robust evidence-based approach to accomplishing that goal. Perhaps most interesting is that many of the modifications that help depressed workers become more productive in the workplace; telecommuting, flexible work schedules and occasional breaks during work hours, cost very little to employers, benefit nearly every employee and are demonstrated to increase overall employee productivity.
A robust mental wellness program is the gateway to help employees and companies. The plan must create an environment that helps prevent mental illness or mental illness recurrences. This new proactive business and social culture would see huge returns on the investment into such a plan given that there is a $7 return on every $1 investment in expanded diagnosis and treatment of employee depression. That return on investment is certainly a pretty penny earned. Ben would be proud.
Melissa Thompson left a burgeoning Wall Street career as a trader with Goldman Sachs to become a female pioneer in the world of technology. She is currently the CEO and co-founder of Talk Session, an online counseling platform in beta mode, that will connect users with highly credible professionals for on-demand, mobile therapy and counseling sessions using proprietary algorithm matching and artificial intelligence.